Whether you are a backyard gardener, an urban homesteader, or you run a commercial farm, the fight against pests and predators is ongoing, especially if you are growing organic and trying to homestead with permaculture principles in mind. Sometimes this fight gets the best of us and we become more indiscriminate about killing what might affect our yield. This is a real problem. Some of our collateral damage can be creatures that benefit our garden. Getting rid of them can have a devastating impact, on not only our personal gardens, but the environment as a whole, and that is not good for growers anywhere. Fortunately, this is a problem easily solved. There are only a few dangerous pests. Knowing and identifying them are important confidence-boosters that will make the motto “Live and let live” easier to follow.
Bats are one of the animals that can positively impact your homestead but are sometimes unwanted due to fear and/or misunderstanding. Bats have been portrayed as dangerous, blood-sucking, rabies-carrying, vicious predators. They are tremendous predators: eating moths, caddis flies, midges, beetles, and mosquitoes. A large colony of bats can catch up to 10,000 pounds of bugs a night. North American bats will also eat fruit sometimes, but bats do not search out and feed on blood. As for rabies, approximately one percent of bats are infected with the disease and far fewer pass it on to humans. The humans that have been infected with rabies from a bat were not attacked. They picked up a diseased bat from the ground and were bit. To avoid this, don’t handle bats with your bare hands. If you absolutely must move them, carefully scoop them up with a shovel or wear some thick, leather work-gloves.
Bats are at risk of population decline due to their slow reproductive rate, habitat loss, widespread pesticide use, and a fungus that is associated with the White-Nose Syndrome. Although there are no known methods to attract bats to your property, you can encourage them by installing bat houses. They can be purchased at most garden centers or you can build your own bathouse. There are several variations but the basic design is a flat, rectangular box with an entrance slot at the bottom. The entrance slot should be 3/4” wide. Add horizontal grooves every 1/4”-1/2” on the interior surface to allow the bats to hang. Fasten the box 15-20′ from the ground on the east or southeast side of a building. This is not an instant-gratification type of project. It can take up to three years for bats to move into your bat house.
Spiders are another beneficial that get killed more than necessary. Most spiders have a trace of venom but, from the almost 3,000 spider species in the United States, there are only two that have enough venom to injure a human. Knowing how to identify and avoid these spiders will keep you and your family—and innocent spiders—safe.
The black widow is one of the spiders to know and avoid. The female has a glossy black body, slightly smaller than a garbanzo bean. The underside of her body is marked with a red hourglass. She rarely leaves her small, matted web. Black widows are generally gentle but will bite when provoked. In fact, she will often try to escape rather than bite, unless she is guarding an egg mass. Their bite is painful but can be treated. Male spiders do not bite.
The Brown Recluse, commonly known as the violin spider, or fiddle-back, has a violin/fiddle-shaped patch on the yellow segment behind its head. This spider lives in the southern half of the United States. The web of this spider is made up of loose, irregular strands.
They like to dwell outdoors in sheltered corners or among loose debris, or indoors behind furniture. One will sometimes hide in folded towels or clothing and bite when disturbed. A bite from a brown recluse is especially poisonous to people and extremely painful. People who are bitten often become ill. The bite usually develops a crust and a surrounding red area. It leaves a deep crater which often takes several months to heal.
Avoid black widows and brown recluses by shaking out clothing and towels before using them. It is also a good practice to avoid reaching into dark crevices with bare hands.
Next on our list of misunderstood beneficials is the snake. There is something in most of us that instinctively fears the snake even though only four of the 115 species in North America are venomous. Rattlesnakes, copperheads, coral snakes, and cottonmouths, are the snakes to know and avoid. Look for a thick body and a large triangular head when identifying rattlesnakes, copperheads, and cottonmouths. As we know, a rattlesnake has a rattle at the end of their tail, but do not rely on the warning rattle. Due to the increase of rattlesnake hunts, they are evolving. A lot of their “rattles” are silent. When identifying a venomous coral snake, heed the warning, “red next to yellow kills a fellow.”
There are several things you can do to make your yard unwelcoming to snakes. First, do not mulch your plots. Mulch provides shelter and attracts mice. Mice, the preferred meal, will attract snakes. Next, keep your yard cleaned up and stack wood away from the house. Keep the lawn close to your house cut. Finally, do not leave pet food unattended outside.
The other 111 species of snake can be good friends to the gardener. Insects and rodents are the real prey of snakes. The garter snake, eastern ribbon snake, green or grass snake, and brown snake feed on slugs, snails, and insects. The corn snake, rat snake, and milk snake eat mice and rats. In addition to rodents, the king snake also eats venomous snakes. If a venomous snake smells a king snake, it will avoid coming into that area. You only need to be able to identify venomous snakes in order to protect yourself. The other snakes may strike you if you surprise them and although it will likely be painful, it will not harm you. If, for curiosity sake, you want to know what snakes are on your homestead, invest in an identification book.
Finally, we come to the list of beneficial insects. It is easy, when hand-picking bugs off your garden plants, to pray for the demise of all bugs, but beneficial insects far outnumber insect pests. Bees, flies, and some moths help with pollination. Parasitic insects will lay their eggs inside pests, eventually killing them. To break down decaying material, nothing beats dung beetles and flies.
First, we’ll look at wasps. Most species of parasitic wasps belong to one of three main families: chalcids, braconids, and ichneumonids. These wasps will inject their eggs inside pest insects. The larvae grow by absorbing nourishment through the skin of these host insects. Yellow jackets and hornets are terrific pest predators. They dive into plants and pick off flies, caterpillars, and other larvae to feed their brood. If you locate the gray paper nests of these wasps, understand that they provide many benefits to your garden. Of course, don’t take unnecessary chances with your health or the wellbeing of your family. Remove them if they are in a place that is frequented by people or pets. If you or a family member is allergic to wasp stings, take extra precautions and destroy any nest you find on your property.
Next, let’s consider beneficial species of beetles. Lady beetles are a family of beetles that include more than 3000 species. They are small to medium in size, with hard, shiny, hemispherical bodies. The larvae have tapering bodies with short, branching spines on each segment, making them look like miniature alligators. Both the adult beetles and the larvae eat pests. Ground beetles are another type of beneficial beetle. They are fast, medium to large, bluish-black beetles. They hide during the day and go to work at night. They eat a wide variety of pest insects including cabbage maggots, cutworms, snail and slug eggs, and more. Some ground beetles will even climb trees to prey upon armyworms or tent caterpillars. You have a good chance of discovering a large population of ground beetles in orchards with undisturbed ground covers and in gardens under stone pathways. Rove beetles also offer help to the gardener. Rove beetles are small to medium in size with an elongated body and short, stubby wings. Many species of rove beetles decompose manure and plant material. Other species of rove beetles are predators of garden pests that spend part of their life cycle in the soil, such as root maggots. Other beneficial beetles include the hister beetle, tiger beetles, and fireflies (yes, they are beetles!) Both the larvae and adults of these beetles eat larvae, slugs, and snails.
Flies are another beneficial that are difficult for many to love. There are three types that do great things. Tachinid flies are the large, bristly, dark gray flies. They place their eggs or larvae on cutworms, caterpillars, corn borers, stinkbugs, and other pests. Tachinid flies are extremely important for the natural suppression of tent-caterpillar or army-worm outbreaks. Syrphid flies are the black-and-yellow striped flies. They are also called flower or hover flies and are often mistaken for bees or yellow jackets. They lay their eggs in aphid colonies where the larvae can feed on the aphids. Be careful that you do not mistake their larvae, which are gray or translucent slug-like maggots, for small slugs. Aphid midges are the third type of beneficial flies. Aphid-midge larvae are tiny, orange maggots that are voracious aphid-predators.
Other beneficial insects to enjoy and encourage are dragonflies and lacewings. Dragonflies and the smaller damselflies are effective predators. Their food of choice are the mosquitoes, gnats, and midges that are common around marshes, ponds, or garden water-features. Lacewings are very delicate. They are green or brown insects with large, transparent wings with a fine network of veins. They lay pale green oval eggs, each egg at the tip of a long, fine stalk or along the midrib of lettuce leaves or other leafy garden plants. The larvae are also brown or green and eat a variety of tiny garden pests including aphids, scale insects, and small caterpillars.
Attracting and protecting beneficials is an important part of expanding and maintaining organic practices. Not only is it the most environmentally sound way to prevent problems from insect pests, it is the most inexpensive. There are a variety of things you can do in order to encourage beneficial insects to help you work your garden. Most importantly, do not use toxic sprays or dusts in the garden. Read labels carefully – even botanical insecticides can kill beneficial species. Spend time making your garden a safe and welcoming place for the beneficials you want to attract. Fill a shallow dish with stones and water; this will allow tiny insects to drink without drowning. Don’t be over-zealous with your weeding; leaving some weeds around your edibles will become a valuable alternative food source and shelter. In order to protect beneficial insects from dehydration, plant a hedge or build a windbreak to reduce dust. You can also add to the beauty of your garden while providing a food source for adult beneficial insects. Simply plant a border of companion plants that are high in pollen and nectar. Culinary and medicinal herbs such as catnip, dill, and yarrow are lovely choices. You could also add permanent stone pathways or mulched beds where beneficial insects can hide.
When it comes to planning a garden space, give some time and thought to the creatures, large and small, that can make your work easier and more productive. Spend time in your habitat and become acquainted with the animals that already live there. Think about the animals you want to attract as well as the ones you want to discourage. Spending some time educating yourself about your landscape and your needs will help you create and implement a gardening plan that will benefit both you and the wildlife around you.